Berach had never felt so alone and miserable in his life. He didn’t know what to do, where to go, who to turn to. He’d never thought in a million years he would wind up this way—used, betrayed, uncertain who to trust, seriously considering destroying himself in order to destroy his work because that seemed the only way left to him to stop what would soon happen.
He rubbed at his eyes, which burned from crying, from spending too long bent over papers in a dark room lit only by two small candles, from being awake for too many hours without rest. What in the hell was he going to do?
The urge to run to Master Tell rose up again, but Berach squashed it. If he could not trust his own fucking mentor, how he could trust his mentor’s best and oldest friend? He could not trust anyone, really, who had eagerly supervised his water spell work, always being so helpful and encouraging—
And now so much of their stupid secret conversations and smug smiles and quiet snickers made sense, and he felt like such a fucking fool. If Tiege were here, Berach for once would have no right to be angry when he started calling Berach a stupid, foolish mage because he was and it was too late to stop them unless his charms died with him—
Scrubbing at his eyes again, he then angrily shoved everything on his desk to the floor and stood up because this was his fault for being so wrapped up in his magic he ignored everything around him and if he had to throw himself off a tower or a bridge or whatever to fix it then he would because he was a fool—
He yelped as he slammed into something hard, and went crashing to the hard stone floor of the castle, tears streaming down his face from his panic and the sudden burst of pain. Scowling, he glared up—and froze in fear and shame and misery as he saw the one person he did not want to see, because if Tiege had hated him before…
Well, he definitely had the right to hate him now, and that was depressing, because Berach had always quietly, secretly wished he knew how to convince Tiege he wasn’t just another spoiled brat noble involved in magic for the wealth and glory and easy life.
Tiege scowled back, roughly handsome as always, wearing his armor like he’d been born in it, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword, a book in his other hand. “What the hell are you going Berach?”
“N-n-nothing,” Berach said, and stood hastily up, then tried to shove past him and be on his way—only for Tiege to grab his arm and yank him back, then shove him up against the wall. “Let me go.”
“No,” Tiege said. “What’s wrong?”
Berach shook his head, “It doesn’t matter, you can’t fix it, only I can—”
Teige shook him, hard, then shoved him up against the wall again, moving in closer so they were all but pressed together. “I’m serious, Berach. What’s wrong?”
“What do you care!” Berach shouted, losing his temper. “You hate me! And they all used me! And now they’re going to flood that village and it’s all my fault and I didn’t know but now it’s too late to s-s-s-stop them!”
To his complete surprise, Teige froze, tensed—and gripped his arm all the tighter. Berach winced in pain, but said nothing. “They went already! They weren’t supposed to go—god damn it! Stay here, or I’ll kill you myself!”
He bolted off, leaving Berach to sink to the floor, trembling with confusion and fear and-and he didn’t know what, except it seemed Tiege was going to do something. Not certain what else to do, but absolutely certain he should be near to hand, he slowly picked himself up and made his way through the castle to his bedroom. Only seconds after sitting down on his bed, Berach was snatched away by exhaustion.
When he woke, it was because he was being roughly shaken. He jumped, jerked, scrambled away—then stared blearily at an exhausted, roughed-up looking Tiege. “What—”
Tiege cut him off with a short, sharp motion, then thrust a bag at him. Berach immediately recognized it as the bag containing his special water charms that he had finished and handed over to his mentor just that—well, no, it was probably yesterday morning by now. “Deactivate them,” Tiege said.
Berach took the bag, dumped the contents out on his bed, and immediately began to deactivate them. By the time he was done rendering the two dozen charms harmless, he was completely depleted of magical energy and ready to fall asleep again. He couldn’t believe… “You saved the village?”
“Yes, barely,” Tiege said. “It took us most of the night to find all the charms they’d scattered about the village. You really are the smartest, dumbest mage I’ve ever met, Berach.”
Cringing, Berach began to return the dead charms to the bag. “I know. I’m sorry, I really didn’t know—you did!” he burst out. “You knew and never said and—” He stopped as Tiege covered his lips with one finger.
“I didn’t know you were innocent,” Tiege said quietly, hazel eyes pale and pretty and intent as they looked at him. Slowly he let his finger fall away. “You seemed so sincere, so guileless, I just knew it had to be an act and you were in on it like the rest of them. I never realized you really were just that oblivious and stupid.”
“I’m sorry I’m stupid,” Berach said. “I just wanted to practice magic, I never meant to anyone to abuse my water work like that. Why would they want to kill so many people?”
Tiege sighed and raked a hand through his dark hair. “To anger the King, to make a point. We stopped them, though, because you told me in time.”
Berach shrugged. “That was luck. I was going to go throw myself off the tower or moat, I hadn’t decided which yet.”
“Idiot,” Teige said softly, sighing. “How can one man be so smart and so dumb?”
“I’m sorry!” Berach snapped. “I’m sorry I’m stupid, I’m sorry I’m a mage, I’m sorry you hate me—I’m sorry for all of it!” He swung his feet off the bed and stood up—and yelped again as he was yanked down, tripping as the back of his feet hit the bed, toppling so he landed in an undignified heap in Tiege’s lap. “I hate you.”
Tiege made a soft noise and slowly picked him up, set him to rights—then took his hand in one of his own, holding it tightly. With his other hand, he lifted Berach’s chin. “I feel it is my turn to apologize. I did not believe someone as honest as you could exist. I took you for a liar even though it is painfully obvious you cannot lie to save your own life, and I am still being unfairly callous. I do not hate you. My problem has always been that I could never entirely hate you, no matter how hard I tried.”
Berach opened his mouth, then closed it again. “I don’t understand.”
“You’re so busy with your magic, with trying to please everyone else, that you never take care of yourself,” Tiege said, which seemed to have nothing to do with anything else he’d said, but Berach didn’t interrupt. “You’re the smartest, most talented mage in this castle, but you’re so wrapped up in that you cannot eat or rest properly. You’re brilliant and stupid all at once and it drives me mad. If you took better care of yourself, or had someone to take care of you, this probably would not have reached this point. That’s why I’m always yelling at you.”
“Oh,” Berach said, feeling—hell, he didn’t even know what. “Why do you care whether or not I’m taking care of myself? You’ve nothing to do with me, or me with you.”
Tiege slowly let go of his chin, and Berach wasn’t certain if the touch he felt along his throat was real or imagined. “I must return to the royal palace, now that the problems here have been dealt with. I have been ordered to convince you to come along as well. The King could use your skills.”
Berach frowned. “Me? A royal mage? I’m still only just a journeyman.”
“You can finish your training at the palace,” Tiege said, waving the words aside. “The King is highly interested in a good mage who has enough talent to make such powerful water charms. He is hoping your skills can be used in other ways, to help rather than harm.”
“Yes!” Berach said. “Yes! I would—I don’t want—I want to help, yes.”
Something that almost looked like a smile curved Tieges mouth for a moment, and made Berach’s heart speed up in his chest. “The only thing is, I said you were careless and inexperienced in certain matters, and that others would be after your skills and knowledge and so it would be best if he appointed you a bodyguard. As I already know you, he made me your bodyguard—if you are amenable.”
Berach opened his mouth, then closed it again, going over and over everything Tiege had just said to him, carefully analyzing and over analyzing and reanalyzing every single word. “You really don’t hate me?”
“No,” Tiege said. “Just that you’re an idiot when it comes to your own welfare.”
“Well—I guess since you’re my bodyguard now, my welfare is your job. Do better than me.”
“Gladly,” Tiege said, and only as he relaxed then did Berach realize he had been tense the entire time. “Now, go back to sleep if you like. We’re not leaving until tomorrow morning and I know deactivating those charms was exhausting.”
Berach nodded, then hesitated, looking at their hands still joined in his lap. “You look tired too,” he said finally, and looked up again, then finished slowly. “You say I never rest properly, so shouldn’t you stay and make certain that I do?”
Tiege looked at him in surprise—then smiled, and Berach thought it was the prettiest damn thing he had ever seen and even magic wasn’t as wonderful as getting Tiege to smile, as being the reason he smiled. “I think you’re right,” Tiege said, and let go of Berach’s hand to pull off his over tunic and boots, his swords and daggers, setting it all neatly aside.
Then he turned to Berach, and stripped off his out layers as well—and the shoes that Berach only then realized he was still wearing. When his extraneous clothes had been cast aside, Tiege tidied the blankets, then climbed under them and motioned for Berach to follow suit.
Berach obeyed, and it should have felt strange to have someone else in his bed, but either it didn’t or he was simply too tired to feel it. Either way, he settled comfortably alongside Tiege, liking the weight of the arm that settled over him, the idea that Tiege had been ordered to look after him—
And he liked best of all the soft kiss Tiege pressed to his mouth, brief but filled with a thousand things Berach had never dared think about. He moved a bit closer, letting his eyes fall shut, and fell asleep to the sound and feel of Tiege’s breathing.